Dancing with the Straw-person

Author Kathleen Rea
February 21, 2023

TRIGGER WARNING: Describes disturbing and manipulative tactics

Recently I was publicly shamed on social media. Now when venturing onto social media it is a given that this will occur. I know by using social media I sign up for that risk so when it occurs it is not surprising.

This person who shamed me has been spreading the idea in our contact improvisation (CI) community that we were having catastrophic physical safety issues at our dance jams. Now, this in some ways is easy to sell because CI jams will always have ongoing safety issues even with a community that is actively addressing them. Also, CI is an inherently risky activity. There will inevitably be some injuries across time that will seem to prove the person’s point. This person said in the comment in which they publicly shamed me that our CI community was one of the worst they had ever seen in terms of physical safety. So the question is, is this true? It could be. I have not travelled enough to know. Is the problem as big as this person is making it out to be? Their complaints reminded me of a story that occurred in my community seven years ago.

To tell the story I need define the term “straw-person”

The “straw-person
This term is usually called the strawman but I decided to go with a nongendered version. This is a manipulation technique in which a person creates a fake enemy and whips up a frenzy of fear and worry and then steps in as the rescuer. It is designed as a way to obtain power over a group. It is a standard cult technique and it has also been used to justify wars. Think, the Iraq war in which weapons of mass destruction were fabricated to whip the public into a frenzy of fear to justify a war. In this situation, the weapons of mass destruction were the “straw-person”.

Seven years ago a community member created a “straw-person” by convincing people that no one in the community did CI correctly and that everyone needed to be retrained. I found out later that he critiqued all the other teachers in the community discouraging people from attending their classes. At the same time setting himself up as the person who could rescue people from their bad training. He even went so far as to publicly shame me by telling people I got injured because I did not know how to give “real weight”. All the while he was very friendly to me and no one told me this was going on. This all ended in a situation in which they assaulted a community member and were banned from the two big community jams. When all was revealed I think many people felt deeply hurt by this person. I feel this happening created a deep wound in the community which is still healing.

This “straw-person” technique is especially effective in CI communities that are far along in their work of “caring” and “listening”. The community in which I practice CI has over time created structures of care. For example, safety and boundary teams with skill sets in taking concerns seriously have been formed. This is all good but it does put us at risk because this level of care can be used to get a “straw-person” through the door. One of the reason I am writing this post is so people can do the good work of taking concerns seriously while being aware of the potential of a straw-person being flung their way.

Burning the Strawperson at the Stake
Another term is Burning the Straw-person at the Stake. It is the act of calling out for public shaming a largely made-up enemy (a straw-person). It is a way to acquire power by taking out your competition. In the above story the public shaming I received over my injury was the “burning me at the stake”. Purists, moralizers, and populists are the figures that engage the most in burning-stake power moves. The angrier the callout is the more on the side of good the “purist” seems to be. Aggression is justified due to needing to rescue people from the enemy. And the more spirited they seem, the more likely people will want to follow them to be “part of the movement” and maybe acquire some scraps of status within the new judgment based system.

Can’t remember the term
Hey if someone can remind me of the term of this technique please put it in the comments! When an issue is brought forth the community works to asses if the issue is valid. The person bringing forward a “straw-person” concern may bring forward other questions related but also removed from the main concern. The aim is to whip the group into arguments or debate that shift them away from asking the question “is this concern valid?”  An example would be someone saying publicly “Hey, I am upset about your lateness to our group meetings”. I may say “But, I have never been late”. They could then say “The question is, is Kathleen’s lateness part of her character that can’t be changed or is it related to her current stress which, we may be able to help with by reducing her workload?” If I start arguing that I am not under undue stress then I have fallen for the technique because in responding to the second set of statements I have inadvertently agreed that the first point is true.

In the story from my community’s past instigating debate about the best way to adress the training issue would be an example of this technique because it pulls people away from the question of whether there is, in fact, a rampant problem with bad training. And there will always be some bad training in all of us. We all have things and habits we can work on in our dancing but the real question is, was our training as catastrophically horrible as was being suggested.

So back to my current experience of my recent public shaming on social media. I have no idea as to why it occurred. Maybe the person had a bad day and was venting or maybe what they said is true or even partially true and they did not pick the best tone to explain their view. The question is, is the CI community that I am part of the worst in terms of physical safety in the world? The work of creating safe places at CI dance jams never ends and will be ongoing regardless of the answer to this question. Either way work is ahead of us to a) do the work to fix our catastrophic physical safety issues or b) do the work of making sure a straw-person is not flung onto our community fire.

Kathleen Rea
danced with Canada’s Ballet Jorgen, National Ballet of Canada & Tiroler Landestheater (Austria). She fell in love with contact improvisation 25 years ago & has been involved in the community ever since. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and has been nominated for 5 DORA awards. Kathleen has a learning disability which means writing takes 6 times longer than average. It is one of life’s mysteries that despite this struggle she loves writing and is a published author (The Healing Dance). She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts with a minor in Psychology. She is a certified teacher of the Axis Syllabus and Buteyko Breathing. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance, a Toronto not-for-profit dance company that is contact improvisation based and produces a weekly jam, a Film Fest, and dance theatre productions. She has autism & works to educate the world about neurodiversity. She developed the well-read REAson d’etre dance Dance Jam Guidelines (download here) which over the past 20 years have influenced the contact improvisation worldwide community. She also is the founder of the Contact Improv Consent Culture Blog. Kathleen Rea’s Demo Reel

One thought on “Dancing with the Straw-person

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: